An Interview with Rajia Hassib

By Selin Gökcesu

Rajia Hassib was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, and moved to the US at age twenty-three. In the Language of Miracles is her first novel.
Rajia Hassib was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, and moved to the U.S. at age twenty-three. She earned a degree in architecture from the University of Alexandria and a second bachelor’s and a master’s in English from Marshall University, where she went on to teach creative writing and postcolonial literature. She lives in Charleston, WV, with her husband and two children. In the Language of Miracles is her first novel.

In the Language of Miracles is the story of the Al-Mehshawys, a Muslim family from Egypt. Nagla and Samir immigrate to New York in 1985, with their infant son Hosaaam, and Samir finds success as a physician in the suburbs of New Jersey, where the family has two more children, Khaled and Fatima. When Hosaam murders his girlfriend, Natalie, and takes his own life, the family members become outcasts in their community. In the Language of Miracles is a novel about individuals dealing with loss, grief, and shame in the aftermath of violence.

Selin Gökcesu

I read in previous interviews that you were moved by the events surrounding 9/11 in designing the plot and having the novel unfold around an act of violence. But, the act of violence in the book is very specific, and in some ways, very stereotypical: a young man kills his girlfriend and commits suicide. Can you tell us more about this choice, about its relationship to political violence at a larger scale, and its personal impact on the characters?

Rajia Hassib

While the aftermath of 9/11 was, indeed, the main reason I built the plot around an act of violence, I was never interested in a direct exploration of the political aspects of that particular terrorist attack. Instead, I wanted to explore how this one event shaped the lives of so many who were neither involved in it nor in any way responsible for it. As a Muslim living in the United States since before 9/11, I saw firsthand how this terrorist attack rattled the entire Muslim community in so many ways, and I wanted to investigate this on its most basic, human level.

So I chose to build the novel around a straightforward act of violence that cannot be construed as politically or ideologically motivated. I felt this choice would free me to explore the impact of such violence on the survivors on a more intimate level because my characters would not have to deal with political implications directly. Having said that, I also knew that politics would unquestionably loom in the background—one of the themes the novel is exploring is why any crime committed by a Muslim seems to taint the entire religion, which, in a way, is one of the direct results of 9/11. So choosing a simple and specific act of violence allowed me to explore the politics of how culture views violence committed by Muslims, even if this violence is not politically motivated. This has always fascinated me, partly because it is my personal belief that political violence in general, when viewed in relation to the actual human beings who commit it, can always be traced to some sort of personal motivation. Research into the minds of terrorists has shown how past personal experiences play a role in radicalizing individuals, in turning them into people ready to perform acts of unspeakable cruelty. So my belief is that violence is always personal and intimate, and that’s how I chose to represent it in my novel.

Selin Gökcesu

My reading of Hosaam was as a somewhat ambiguous character at first. He became a villain once it was revealed that he tried to set his brother up. This was partly because we weren’t exposed to his inner world and mental state enough to sympathize with him. What was behind the decision to keep Hosaam a black box and a somewhat unsympathetic character?

Rajia Hassib

Buy it from your local bookstore, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.
Buy In the Language of Miracles from your local bookstore, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.

I intentionally kept Hosaam an ambiguous and unsympathetic character, and I did so for two reasons. The first was my determination to keep this novel about Hosaam’s family, not about him. In what I know is a cruel judgement on my part, I felt that Hosaam’s decision to take his own life silenced his voice, that he, in a way, lost the privilege of representation when he chose to commit a violent act and leave his family to deal with the aftermath. I felt more sympathy with them than I did with him, perhaps because his choices turned their worlds upside down. I will admit that part of this stance is rooted in how I, as a Muslim, feel toward terrorists who commit acts of violence and get killed themselves. I always wonder how the terrorist’s mother feels, for example, or how his siblings can go on with their daily lives. In addition to the pain of knowing that a loved person did something so cruel, the family is left with the added pain of never knowing why he did it.

Which brings me to the second reason I chose to refrain from exploring Hosaam’s inner world: his family would never have access to that. They will never know exactly what led him to act the way he did, and I wanted the reader to share in their puzzlement, knowing fully well that it is a frustrating exercise and that many readers will be left unsatisfied. In my mind, however, this frustration can and should bring the readers closer to the experience of Hosaam’s family, who, after all, are the protagonists of this novel.

Selin Gökcesu

We see Hosaam alive in two scenes. His second appearance, halfway through the book, is especially startling and eerie. What did you want the readers to know about him through these scenes? What was the reasoning behind the timing of Hosaam’s appearances?

Rajia Hassib

Structurally, the novel is told from the points of view of three characters—Hosaam’s parents and his brother—and I felt I needed to allow these three voices time to develop and get established before I ventured into whatever limited access I was going to grant them into Hosaam’s life. I wanted to make it clear that my interest lay in the lives of Khaled, Nagla, and Samir—not in Hosaam’s life. So the timing was partly dictated by the pace of the novel as it was designed to focus on the three narrators. As I was developing their characters, I also reasoned that the more readers became interested in my narrators, the more they will want to learn about Hosaam, which meant that holding off on satisfying their curiosity—however limited this satisfaction was going to be—should make for a more engaging and intense reading experience. Once it was time to present Hosaam in the limited scenes I included, I hoped that readers would see him as a troubled young man, one who is showing signs of mental illness just clear enough to appear as such in hindsight but subtle enough to excuse his family for not noticing them earlier.

Apart from all of that, I will admit to one playful motive on my part: I hoped that delaying Hosaam’s scenes would give readers time to make presumptions about his motives and then test those presumptions against the explanation I end up offering. I felt that some readers may jump to the conclusion that Hosaam’s violence was religiously motivated—as many people do with all crimes committed by Muslims—and that delaying the revelation that he was, perhaps, a victim of mental illness, not religious extremism, may induce those readers to question the reasons they rushed toward such a conclusion to start with.

Selin Gökcesu

Throughout the novel, all the central characters change drastically except for Nagla’s mother Ehsan, who came from Egypt to stay with the family after Hosaam’s death. Could you tell us a little more about how you shaped her as a character, whether she was based on a particular person or perhaps a prototypical grandmother? What about her rendered her so impervious to change, even following a traumatic event in the family?

Rajia Hassib

Ehsan is definitely a prototypical grandmother. She is not based on any one particular person, but is rather a collage of many women I knew growing up in Egypt. The older I got, the more I appreciated the resilience of many of those women, who never seemed to realize how vital their solid dependability was for their families, how cherished their unquestioning love. I wanted Ehsan to embody the simple, generous qualities of all these women who internalized the roles their society dictated on them—mother, wife, nurturer—and who performed these roles with willingness and without questioning. These same qualities—the acceptance of the status quo, the inability to question society’s conditioning—are the ones that make Ehsan so impervious to change.

She hangs on to her religious belief, her place in society, her role in her family, and she is both too kind and too scared to challenge any of that. Her religious belief in particular is crucial here, since it would induce her to accept any traumatic event as God’s will, and, by extension, would characterize any questioning of God’s will as blasphemous. Interestingly, such simple attitudes towards traumatic events make it easier for her to cope than it is for anyone else in her family. So she remains unchanged.

Selin Gökcesu

In the novel, we meet several Muslim women—Ehsan, Nagla, Nagla’s friend Ameena, and Fatima—who are all very different from each other. I felt that Ameena especially challenged the simplistic Western stereotype of a Muslim woman. Can you tell us a little about how these characters came about? I was especially curious about which aspects of them were intentional from the start and which emerged as you wrote.

Rajia Hassib

Of the four women, Ehsan and Fatima were the ones clearest in my mind when I started the novel. Ehsan was to be the typical Egyptian grandmother, generous and loving, and Fatima was to be fairly religious—a reflection of a quality I see in many young Muslim women and which I think is not the expected stereotype. Ameena was not as clear a character when I started; her character did develop as I went along, but it developed naturally because she, too, represents many women I have come across in my life, despite how different she is from the Western stereotype. Of the four women, though, Nagla was the most difficult for me to get to know. In fact, I went through a revision of the novel where I literally rewrote every single chapter told from Nagla’s point of view after the novel was supposedly finished, just because I was not satisfied with the way I originally portrayed her. I had seen her as a grieving mother and little else, but, as I wrote her chapters, she started to emerge as a character with deeper troubles, a woman with a capacity for self-examination that ran much deeper than I had expected or intended, and I wanted to rewrite her chapters to give her the room to develop and emerge as the character I knew she was. Having said that, I did not set about intentionally trying to make the four women different; I just tried to develop them in the way I felt was the most honest both to their personalities and to the novel’s progress.

Selin Gökcesu

As a family, each of the Al-Menshawys is somewhat alienated from their greater community and the American culture. Although she is far more foreign, Ehsan is able to relate with Americans at a very human level, as exemplified by the graveyard scene. Can you tell us more about why that is?

Rajia Hassib

Ehsan’s absolute foreignness is the very reason she can so easily connect with Americans. Because she has no desire to fit in the American culture, she feels no pressure to conform and no embarrassment because of her difference. The Al-Menshawys want to be American, and arguably identify more as Americans than as Egyptians, and they are therefore more sensitive to their perceived differences. Freed from the pressure of self-consciousness, Ehsan is able to see the similarities between her and Americans, rather than focus on the differences. This allows her to connect with others on the very basic level of their shared humanity. It also helps that she is a genuinely kind and loving person and, as such, is quite sensitive to the feelings of others and immediately motivated to try to make them feel better.

Selin Gökcesu

With each chapter, the point-of-view changes. We see the events through the eyes of Khaled, Nagla, and Samir, but never through Fatima’s perspective. Why not?

Rajia Hassib

Thematically, I felt any contribution Fatima’s point of view would have to offer can easily be included in Khaled’s chapters, but that the opposite was not true. For while Khaled can explore the struggles of being the surviving sibling of a murderer, he has the added burden of being male and, therefore, of having to deal with the potential fear his community may feel toward him—he is the one who can arguably end up repeating his brother’s crime. I therefore felt his character had more to offer simply because he had more at stake. In addition, Fatima’s religiousness seemed to offer her a degree of peace. Between that and her young age, I felt she was not as conflicted as her parents or her brother had to be. She would have still made a fascinating character to explore, but I did not feel her character’s arc was necessary to the plot.

Selin Gökcesu

I have always had my own fascination with Arabic, which has some similarity to Khaled’s fascination with it. Although I don’t speak it, it has always been associated with divinity and holiness. In the book, we are exposed to Arabic through Khaled’s musings. Why is Arabic the language of miracles from Khaled’s perspective? Why is it the language of miracles from your perspective?

Rajia Hassib

From Khaled’s perspective, Arabic is the language his grandmother speaks when she prays for his health and his prosperity. It is the language of the Qur’an, which she reads in the hope of infusing protection upon him and his family, the language of prayer and, by extension, of the magic that is inherent in prayer, the belief in a God who can perform miracles. From Khaled’s perspective, Arabic is the language of miracles because the Egyptian part of his hyphenated identity associates the expectation of miracles with his Islamic faith as presented by his grandmother. When he prays for a miracle, he prays in Arabic. Here I hasten to note that, as I wrote this novel, I came to the realization that all prayer is, in some way or another, a language of miracles, that faith itself is the same, and that this applies to all people of all beliefs. So the miracle gained a larger scope, for me, and, interestingly, moved me to delete from the novel a direct reference I had to Arabic as the language of miracles, simply because I didn’t want to make this kind of connection between humans and their Gods exclusive to Muslims.

My perspective is a tad more cynical. I still view Arabic as a language of miracles, but I’m forever irked by how some people of my faith and background often rely too heavily on God, praying and waiting for Him to fix their problems without actively and earnestly trying to fix them themselves. I see this quite often, both on personal and on larger, political levels. In a way, the reliance on God that all faiths request can sometimes be transformed into a passive dependence that makes complacency possible. So the language of miracles becomes the vehicle of expecting miracles to happen, and, in the process, just waiting for them and neglecting our responsibility to act. So my subtle criticism of my own culture lay in exploring how often we fall on this sort of complacency, expecting God’s help just because we deem ourselves worthy of it.

Selin Gökcesu

Many of the chapters open with an English saying or quote and its Arabic equivalent, but a few of them open only with an Arabic word. What do these equivalencies (or lack thereof) reveal about the two cultures?

Rajia Hassib

I hope that they can reveal the subtleties of our similarities and differences. The chapters that open with both English and Arabic quotes often show that we are, indeed, quite similar, although they as often reveal how different cultures can interpret the same thing differently. For example, the first quote compares the Biblical “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away” to the Arabic saying “God gave; God took; God will provide compensation.” While both sayings are quite similar in revealing how both cultures attribute life and death to God, how they both acknowledge His right to take back that which He has given, I find the Arabic addition of “God will provide compensation” fascinating. One might argue that this addition implies that suffering is acceptable only as far as one can be rewarded for it. Such subtle differences can be quite telling, when applied to the differences in cultural attitudes toward various events.

The chapters that start with only an Arabic word can be equally revealing, if only by highlighting what the omission says about American culture. The very existence of the word Meadeddah—Arabic for a professional mourner—and the lack of an English equivalent, tells a lot about how the differences in the grieving process. The notion of a woman hired specifically to wail aloud during funeral services would be perceived, in America, as comical, ridiculous, or scandalous, whereas in some of the poorer parts in Egypt it is quite proper to display grief in such obvious, loud ways. Such differences offer food for thought. I hoped that including these various sayings will give readers something to contemplate.

Selin Gökcesu

At a more practical level, I was intrigued by the process of collecting these sayings and quotes—did you get help? Was it an ongoing process? Did the chapters come first or the quotes?

Rajia Hassib

The chapters always came first. I did not start including the quotes until I was on the third draft of this novel, and I started thinking that Ehsan would certainly respond to these chapters through some of the Arabic sayings and quotes—which is a quite typical reaction of an elderly Egyptian woman. But I could not have her do so, simply because she was not in every chapter. Moreover, almost every time I thought of an Egyptian saying, an English equivalent would immediately present itself, and those similarities intrigued me so much that I felt I had to share them with the readers. I did not need help to collect the sayings—I grew up in Egypt, where I was exposed to all of these idioms. Even the English ones came to me right away. The research I did was to find out the origins of the sayings, to determine which ones were religious, for example, and which ones simply traditional. Interestingly, I found that I had assumed some of the Arabic sayings were religious, when they were not, and vice versa. So it turned out to be an educational process for me, as well.

Selin Gökcesu

To me, the overarching themes from the novel were grief and the human desire to control one’s own fate. Can you tell us more about the cultural differences surrounding these themes and how these differences affected the characters and the plot?

Rajia Hassib

These two themes are certainly at the heart of the novel, and the cultural differences between them were crucial in developing the characters. While grief is universal, the human desire to control one’s fate affects how we grieve, and the notion of control is vastly different in different cultures. For one thing, Islam is built on a surrender of one’s control to God. So at the core of the religion is the acknowledgement that one, in fact, has very little control on life’s events, which does not mean that one has no will, but simply implies that one can control only how one can react to events, not whether or not these events happen in the first place. In a way, this can make grieving easier—people tend to accept the event itself as God’s will and can then focus on healing. In contrast, Western culture assumes a much larger degree of control. Here the assumption is that one can not only control one’s fate, but that any undesirable event could have been prevented. This makes for a higher level of accountability, which is a good thing, but it also complicates grieving, because it layers it with regret. Of course I present these differences in an overly simplistic manner—these attitudes are much more nuanced, in reality—but I think the core of my assumptions about cultural differences here has at least a degree of truth.

This brings us back to the earlier question about Ehsan and her steadfastness. As the only purely Egyptian character, she has a simplistic view of fate that assumes very little control on her part. All is God’s will, and, as a good Muslim, she accepts that. Khaled, who falls at the other end of the spectrum, culturally—more American than Egyptian—has to struggle with his grief partly because he is forced to examine these very attitudes and to determine how much of his own control he is willing to relinquish, if any. On the same token, Samir, a Muslim by birth who does not seem to give religion any thought, seems so determined to retain control that he is unable to recognize the futility of some of his actions. And Nagla, who is a mother first and foremost, has to struggle with the Islamic prohibition of asking “What if?” and thereby inviting regret, because, of course, she cannot help but ask. Because this is a character-driven narrative, these themes and the cultural differences surrounding them have, in fact, dictated the plot as well as determined who the characters ended up being.

selin-1

Selin Gökcesu is a Brooklyn-based writer with a Ph.D. in Psychology from Indiana University and an M.F.A. in Nonfiction from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Electric LiteratureGuernica, the Tin House blog, Asymptote Journal’s Translation Tuesdays, and The Rumpus.

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